Posts Tagged ‘Benedictine Volunteers’

img_4000Generosity:  the Point of Christmas

[I preached this sermon at the Christmas Eve Children’s Mass at Saint John’s.}

Let’s be honest and admit up-front that many people here this evening don’t have their minds on the birth of Jesus.  These same people probably didn’t pay much attention during Advent, and John the Baptist and Isaiah slipped right past them.  And they couldn’t have cared less about these Advent characters because their minds were elsewhere.  Specifically, Santa Claus was the guest of honor in there mental living rooms.

Shortly after Thanksgiving I happened to be walking past a Santa Station in a mall, and there they were, eager and anxious youngsters lined up to see Santa.  I make the distinction between eager and anxious because the eager ones had greed written all over their faces.  They desperately hoped they’d get most of what they’d written on their lists for Santa.

Then there were the anxious little kids who were terrified of meeting Santa.  I felt sorry for the parents who tried to still their cries and screams.  It didn’t make for pretty pictures, and I realized once again one of the fringe benefits of being a monk.

img_3990Of course not all kids react that way, as one of my coworkers assured me about her son.  Her son was neither greedy nor terrified.  Rather, he was curious, in a district attorney sort of way.   When his turn came to meet Santa, he put Santa on the hot seat.  “What happens if Santa gets sick — who takes his place?”  “How come the elves never get any bigger?”  “Why would anyone want to live at the North Pole?”  And on it went until Santa gratefully handed her son back back to her.

I do have a point here, and it’s this.  For the  youngest citizens among us, Santa has grabbed their attention.  And if you are one of these kids, please hear what I have to say.  At Christmas Santa and parents and brothers and sisters will bring you presents, but it’s not because you desperately need all those things.  Rather, those gifts are a sign that they love you.  And so, when you get gifts at Christmas, be sure to thank your mom or dad or brother or sister or Santa.  They give because they love you, and they care about you.

I suppose that also applies to the oldest citizens among us too.  Gifts are tokens of love and appreciation, and sometimes people even have to make personal sacrifices to give them.  Our gratitude and thanks are absolutely the best response we can ever give, and it’s something we should consider doing even when Christmas is long over.

img_3995Generosity is the point of Christmas.  In the Bible we read that God so loved the world that he sent his only-begotten son to be one of us.  It’s an act of generosity that we don’t always understand, but it’s one for which we should be grateful for precisely this reason.  In chapter one of Matthew’s gospel we read the genealogy of Jesus, and the point of it is simple.  Jesus may be the son of God, but he is also the son of Mary.  As Matthew tells us, Jesus descends from a long line of Jewish ancestors, stretching back to King David.  And Jesus did not come here to mess around in all of our affairs and give us a whole bunch of rules.  Rather, he’s here to be our brother.  He is one of us, and he’s like us in all things except sin.

What, then, does Christmas mean on a practical level?  It means that God loves us and in Jesus God walks with us.  God doesn’t want to be aloof from our daily problems and the challenges of our lives.  Instead, Jesus came to be part of our lives.  He wants to hear from us, and he wants to speak with us.

So if you’ve never prayed to Jesus as if he were your brother, the time to start is now.  If you’ve never confided in Jesus when you’re going through tough moments, then the time to start is now.  If you’ve never thought that Jesus personally loves you and cares about  you, then the time to start is now.

Jesus was born of Mary in a manger, but not because he had nothing else to do that day.  Rather, he came precisely so that he could get to know each of us.  He came to carry our burdens and to rejoice with us.  He came to be with us in sickness and in health, in good times and in bad.  He came to be our savior and our friend.

What greater love could God have for us, and what greater gift could we possibly get at Christmas?  Be sure then to thank God when you next speak with Jesus.  And thank him especially for the gift of his son, our brother.  Amen.


+On December 23rd Frantz Soiro spoke to the monks in the chapter house about his current year as a Benedictine Volunteer at a Benedictine abbey in Africa.  Frantz grew up in Newark, NJ, went to Saint Benedict’s Prep there, and graduated from Saint John’s University last May.  He is staying with us in the monastery for a month while he takes a course in preparation for medical school, which he will start at Morehouse in Atlanta this fall.  In late January he returns to Africa for the second half of his stint as a Volunteer.

+On December 24th I was the celebrant at the children’s Mass at the Abbey parish.  It was really a fun experience, and I’m grateful to all those parents who managed to calm their little kids down, finally.  A nativity pageant preceded the Mass, and as I watched from the rear of the church I was taken aback by one unexpected development.  As Mary and Joseph and the shepherds circled the manger and then turned around to face us, Mary was holding a doll.  So also did two of the shepherds.  I turned to the lady beside me and gasped that “Mary had triplets!  I don’t think that’s in the book.”  I couldn’t figure it out until they all processed out and I discovered that the other two dolls were actually lambs.  Thankfully they had not rewritten the Nativity story after all.

img_4009+Because we were celebrating the parish Mass in the Abbey church at 5 pm on Christmas Eve, the monks said evening prayer in the Great Hall, the former Abbey church, also at 5 pm.  I wished I had been there to experience that, since it was the first time we’d celebrated evening prayer there in decades.  But alas, I was busy.

+The pictures in today’s post begin with one of the abbey church, followed by a photo of the abbot’s throne, above which is a painting on canvass that used to hang above the altar in the old abbey church during the Christmas season.  We’d not used it in nearly sixty years, and it fit beautifully in the spot where it was hung.  Brother Clement painted it on canvass in the 1930s.  Next is a photo of a decorated tree in the baptistry, and then follows the Christmas tree in the Great Hall.  Last is a photo of the abbey church, facing the great window.


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IMG_9576The Feast of All Souls

[The following text is the sermon that I delivered at the Abbey Mass on the feast of All Souls.]

Not for a minute would I ever contend that my experience with the liturgy of the hours is the same as yours.  Still, there are a few things we likely have in common, and we know so because we’ve sat next to one another for weeks, months, years, and in some cases even decades.

For one thing, it’s safe to say that there are moments when together we’re acutely conscious of what we’re about.  That’s especially true when we sing the psalms, because the words and notes grab our attention.  That sensitivity also tends to linger into the first psalm of morning and evening prayer.  As for the second and third psalms, who really knows?  By then a few of us have begun to drift off; and I know I’m not the only one who’s suddenly realized I’ve failed to turn a page or two.  That’s when I know that I’ve relied on my guardian angel to sustain me.

IMG_9580I say this out of an appreciation for the liturgy, and because of that I also realize that not every verse of the psalms is meant to be a peak experience.  In fact, a great deal of our prayer is meant to be the spiritual equivalent of our daily bread, and not every meal is meant to be a banquet.

Still, I’ve consistently noticed that there’s one item in our morning prayer that seems to command undivided attention, and that’s the petition in which we pray for our deceased confreres on the anniversary of their death.  For all sorts of reasons our ears perk up when the reader goes through that list, and it’s not just to pick up on whether he’s mangled somebody’s name.  I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s moved by the name of a monk who died ninety or a hundred and fifty years ago.  And of course the name of a monk who was a friend touches me even more deeply.  Those names recall good souls who added something to my own life.  And their names remind me that someday my turn will come at morning prayer, once a year, on the anniversary of my own passing.

In a culture that has great difficulty in dealing with death, there’s something delightfully healthy about celebrating the feast of All Souls.  On this day we remember people who lived in our midst.  They contributed something of themselves that continues to speak to us even today; and in subtle and not-so-subtle ways our lives are richer for their walking in our midst.  It’s only appropriate, then, that we celebrate all those souls who have gone before us and now rest in the peace of Christ.

imageBut there’s another reason why we should recall them.  Like us they had moments of struggle in their pilgrimage to the Lord.  Not every day was a peak experience, and not every challenge brought out the best in them.  But they persevered, and like St. Paul they continued to fight the good fight.  And if they’ve now finished their earthly course,  it’s entirely logical that they might still have a few miles to go before they enjoy the fullness of God’s presence.  And so we pray for them, hoping that someday they will pray for us.

Today’s reading from the Book of Wisdom begins with phrases that have always stirred me, because they console wandering pilgrims like myself.  But they also have value as an act of faith.  “The souls of the just are in the hand of God, and no torment should touch them.  They seemed, in the view of the foolish, to be dead; and their passing away was thought an affliction and their going forth as utter destruction.  But they are in peace….God tried them and found them worthy of himself.”

imageWe speak of the Church as the communion of the saints, and that communion includes those who have gone before us, those who gather in God’s name this day, and the generations that will find inspiration in this place in decades and centuries to come.  That certainly gives us kinship with those who have gone before us and now continue on their path to God.  But it also gives us an awesome responsibility to those who will follow us in faith.  Coursing through all these generations, past present and future, is a faith in Jesus Christ that sustains us all.  And if we are younger brothers and sisters to generations past, we are also brothers and sisters to those who are yet to come.

And so it is that we remember the souls of our confreres each day on the anniversary of their death.  And on the feast of All Souls we pray for all souls.  All of them have walked before us in faith, and perhaps they only see dimly the God whom we all seek.  May our prayers for them today be a thank-offering for the nourishment they have given us, and may our prayers help usher them into the fullness of the presence of God.


+On 28 October I visited with Chris Heitzing and Jeremy Welters, alumni of Saint John’s University who are serving as Benedictine Volunteers at Saint Benedict’s Prep in Newark, NJ.

+31 October was a busy day, for me at least.  I hiked out to the soccer pitch to watch the first half of the game with Saint Olaf College, which our team happened to win 2-0.  Then I attended the second half of the football game against Augsburg College, which we also won.  It was a crisp and cold day — typical of a late autumn afternoon, and perfect for those sorts of events.

image+Later that evening over one hundred guests joined us for the Vigil of All Saints.  In the hour preceding prayer our guests were able to visit the crypt chapels in the abbey church, where some thirty-two side altars house the equivalent of a small gallery of art.  I have compiled a gallery of art from the Crypt Chapels, and you can access it via the link.  After evening prayer we all adjourned to the chapter house for light refreshments.

+After an absence of several days I returned to Saint John’s this week, fully expecting that the leaves and the fall colors would be long gone.  Needless to say, that was not the case.  Only a few yellow leaves of the maples cling to the branches, but the oaks are just coming into their own and present a nice show of red and dark amber.  In addition, there’s been a virtual rain of acorns this fall, which comes as a delight to the squirrels.  The squirrel in today’s post was busy in a tree outside the monastery.  He had way too much to do, so he did not protest or run away when I took his photo.

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John the Baptist: The Great Hall

Prepare Ye a Way to the Mall

For logic-choppers like myself, Saturday’s internet ad was a real teaser:  “Last few days of Black Friday Weekend Specials.”  What?  Who wrote this logical conundrum?

Did this start as a one-day sale that had spun out of control?  And since when did Saturday begin to count among the “last few days” of a weekend? Did the  weekend get bigger while I wasn’t looking?  I used to imagine that Saturday was the first day of the weekend; but I’m willing to concede that it could count as the second day of Black Friday weekend.  Still, it’s a big stretch to allow it to be one of the “last few days” of the weekend.  Just how long has this weekend become?  And will the sale go beyond even that?  And who decided all this?

Abbey garden

I can recall a time when this season was a lot simpler.  The clarion call to shop was far less brazen, while the options were a little more manageable.  For me those times were epitomized by The New Yorker Magazine — back when it had a style that seems to have slipped away.

In its heyday, The New Yorker’s bloated post-Thanksgiving issues touted a dazzling array of luxury goods.  The fact that its treasures were financially and geographically beyond the reach of your average monk didn’t matter.  You might not be able to acquire, but at least you could still covet.  And who wouldn’t want a stunningly sleek motorcar or gold watches for both wrists or kilograms of diamonds?  So what if I didn’t really need these things.  It was the thought that counted; and every Advent I gazed in wonder at the tempting spread before me.  It was my own version of Satan’s temptation of Jesus — offering the whole world in return for worship.  But for me, it was structly mental.  All this should be mine, even if it couldn’t actualy be mine.

I long ago realized that my room might be big enough to hold several kilograms of diamonds and a cartload of gold watches, but I really didn’t need them.  Still, the exercise of reviewing the options had become an important annual ritual.  Each Advent the growing avalanche of gift catalogs made me aware of the fundamental choice I had to keep making each day of the year.  Was it going to be simplicity, or was it going to be a total letting go to commercialism?  Which would be my path in life?

In more recent years I’ve come to realize how glitzy and shallow this time of year has become. Certainly there’s an element of nostalgia that warms the heart, but there’s also a side that suggests that this is Mardi Gras gone wild.  It’s become an extended binge of consumption, and it’s as much about getting in on a bargain as it is about not wanting to miss out on a bargain.  One wonders whether people even know what’s in the big boxes that they tote out of the big boxes.  And perhaps in a season of thoughtless overindulgence, it doesn’t really matter.  What matters most is the amassing of goods — so-called.  Never mind that there will be a double-edged hangover.  One must eventually pay for it all, and find a place to put it all.

I don’t want to sound like some sort of grinch, since gift-giving can be an expression of much deeper sentiment.  Still, I’d like to give Saint John the Baptist his annual due.  I know good and well that he’s swimming upstream against a storm surge of products, but I’d like to remind myself that he presents to Christians a vision of an alternative reality.  Even if one is not a believer, there’s something to be said for his message.  In his appeal there’s a little bit of the “wake up and get real” and “get a grip on yourself.”  Actually, there’s quite a lot of that, because that’s the first major point of his message.  “Before it’s too late, consider where you’re going with your life.”  As you stampede through the commercial temples, consider your priorities.  Is this what your life is all about?

“Prepare a path for the Lord” is a not-so-bad reminder that sooner or later we each have to make those ultimate decisions about our character.  Is my purpose in life to be a good consumer? Do I let the trendsetters decide what’s right for me?  Do I really want to abdicate all responsibility for shaping my future?  Will I go with the flow and expect that it’s all going to turn out wonderfully?

Or will I consciously choose some direction for myself?  Will I decide that there is another dimension to me?  Does my own moral fiber matter after all — even if no one else is looking or seems to care?

For better and for worse, John the Baptist is going to nag us about this throughout the Advent season.  Of course he doesn’t have an advertizing manager, but he doesn’t really need one.  All we need do is think of him just once in a while, perhaps when we see an offer that is almost irresistible.  Perhaps when you’re just about to sign for that bucket of diamonds you can catch yourself and recall that you are worth more than an entire diamond mine.  As Jesus reminds us — and as we often forget — are we not worth more than even a sparrow?  I think so.

This year we will buy and give gifts of all sorts.  But if we can add one conscious element to the process, we might be the better for it.  For every tangible gift, present it in an intangible wrapping such as love or respect or affection.  Let that gift reflect the reality of who we are.  We, and the world, might be just a bit better because of it.

Saint Benedict and the snow

+Personal Notes

Over the Thanksgiving holidays I managed to go five days without getting into a car.  While in no way did this constitute any kind of a record for me, it was terrific to stay put at the Abbey.

What do monks do on Thanksgiving?  Well, at Saint John’s we celebrate the Eucharist at 11 am.  This year I was the primary celebrant at the Mass, which means that I had the honor of preaching.  My sense is that the sermon did not spoil the festive meal which followed.

Our Thanksgiving lunch is one every  American would recognize.  Our major differenc from routine is that the pie-makers in the community customarily prepare these delights, which we take with coffee in the lower-level recreation room of the monastery.

Thanksgiving presented quite a contrast in weather, as all Minnesotans realize that it can.  It is on the cusp of seasonal change, and in the morning a clutch of monks went out for a group run, with most wearing light jackets and one of them wearing shorts.  By 2 pm it had become a different world.  I and another monk had planned a walk, and at 1:59 pm we stepped out the door.  One minute later a burst of snowflakes made visibility beautiful but poor, and by 2:15 we were back inside.  By the next day there was a blanket of snow, and the lakes had begun to freeze over.

On Sunday, November 25th, I and two colleagues drove to Duluth to attend the diaconal ordination of Saint John’s University alumnus Tim Egan.  Tim recently retired from his practice as a psychiatrist, and in August I gave a five-day retreat at the Abbey guesthouse for him and his four fellow deacons-to-be from the Diocese of Duluth.  The ordination in the Cathedral in Duluth was a fine afternoon, made even better by the chance to visit with several friends at the reception that followed.

Tabga: courthard

+Benedictine Volunteers: Tabga

For several years Saint John’s Abbey has sponsored a volunteer program for graduating seniors of Saint John’s University.  Made possible through the generosity of many friends of the Abbey, as well as by our own investment of time and energy, these alumni spend a year at Benedictine communities around the world.  They live and pray with the local community and help with their work in any way they can.

The recent turmoil in the Holy Land has caused us to pray in particular for our two volunteers at Tabga, on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee.  By tradition this is the site of the feeding of the five thousand, and elements of a Byzantine basilica remain, incluidng one lovely floor mosaic.  Today a group of Benedictines from Dormition Abbey in Jerusalem staff the small community, and our two volunteers assist with the flood of pilgrims that visit.  Happily, they have been in no real danger at Tabga, due to its remote location.  But it has been good for us to remember them in prayer.

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